The Troll Garden was Willa Cather’s first published collection of short stories, it included:
Flavia and Her Artists, The Sculptor’s Funeral , A Death in the Desert, The Garden Lodge, The Marriage of Phaedra, A Wagner Matinee, Paul’s Case
Four of these “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” “A Death in the Desert,” “A Wagner Matinee,” and “Paul’s Case”—were revised and included in Cather’s next collection of stories; Youth and the Bright Medusa, published in 1920. My kindle edition however includes four more stories positioned before the seven stories of The Troll Garden, On the Divide, Eric Hermannson’s Soul, The Enchanted Bluff and The Bohemian Girl.
Those first four stories like her novels My Antonia and O Pioneers! Concern themselves primarily with the people of the Frontier prairie towns, the European immigrants and their descendants. While the seven stories that make up The Troll Garden concern the role of the Artist in American society, with their ambitions, disappointments, pretensions and passions. In a way those first four stories don’t really fit with the seven stories of The Troll Garden as the themes differ quite widely, although as The Troll Garden is quite a slight collection, it is nice to have four more stories added to it. I am not going to attempt to review each of the eleven stories in detail, but to give a flavour.
In ‘On the Divide’ and ‘Eric Hermannson’s Soul’ Cather captures the loneliness of immigrant farmers and the influence of religion over these small communities. The Enchanted Bluff is a short, beautiful rendering of childhood dreams. As the six boys who dream of adventure at the start of the story grow up, their dreams are replaced by responsibility and changed fortunes, one of them however, is able to pass on that childhood spirit of adventure to his son.
The Bohemian girl was one of my favourites of these eleven stories, slightly reminiscent for me of My Antonia, it is also the longest. Nils Ericson returns to his childhood home after twelve years away. During his absence, the family has been managed by his indomitable mother and his brothers received land to farm from their father under the terms of the one will that was found, however it is believed that there was a second will, a will some members of the family believe Nils to have. Nils return is therefore greeted with some suspicion by some, although there are some pleased to see him. Clara Vavrika is one, she was the friend and confident of Nils’ childhood, a woman with whom Nils fell in love before he went away. Now Clara is married to Nils’ brother Olaf. Clara’s father keeps and bar nearby and here enjoys Nils’ company while Nils’ younger and impressionable brother is just over-awed to have his exotic wandering brother back home. Nils’ soon realises that his feelings for Clara are not merely in the past, and asks her to run away with him.
In Flavia and her Artists, the first story of the The Troll Garden stories, Flavia is portrayed as a rather delusional woman, seeing herself as the centre of society; she enjoys hosting parties of artists and writers at her home. Her husband Arthur struggles to fit into this society, but when one of her prized guests leaves her party early, only for an article satirising Flavia to appear in print soon after, it is Arthur who proves himself a better person, unknown to the still deluded Flavia.
The Sculptor’s Funeral tells in retrospect the poignant story of Harvey Merrick, a famous sculptor. On a snowy evening a few men gather at the railway sidings to welcome Merrick’s body which is being transported home by train. The locals gather in his family home before the funeral, and it soon appears that only two men really mourn the passing of Harvey Merrick, who in his life had become a ridiculed figure by the people of his home town.
“Just then a distant whistle sounded, and there was a shuffling of feet on the platform. A number of lanky boys of all ages appeared as suddenly and slimily as eels wakened by the crack of thunder; some came from the waiting room, where they had been warming themselves by the red stove, or half-asleep on the slat benches; others uncoiled themselves from baggage trucks or slid out of express wagons. Two clambered down from the driver’s seat of a hearse that stood backed up against the siding. They straightened their stooping shoulders and lifted their heads, and a flash of momentary animation kindled their dull eyes at that cold, vibrant scream, the world-wide call for men. It stirred them like the note of a trumpet; just as it had often stirred the man who was coming home tonight, in his boyhood.”
(from The Sculptor’s funeral)
In the subsequent stories of A Death in the Desert, The Garden Lodge and The Marriage of Phaedra, we meet a singer, dying in Wyoming, a musician reminded of her once more glorious youth by a visiting tenor, and a London artist’s assistant desperate to save the last unfinished work of his master. The penultimate story is A Wagner Matinee – another of my favourites, it’s quite short but absolutely perfectly crafted. It tells the story of a young man from Boston, visited by his now elderly aunt, she who once loved and taught music before rashly marrying a Nebraskan farmer and giving up forever the glories she had known in Boston. The young man sees his aunt is much changed, nothing like the woman she once was, she is dressed oddly, hunched over, and the life seems almost to have gone out of her. Her nephew has arranged to take her to a concert, as the concert progresses a change slowly comes over her.
“Soon after the tenor began the “Prize Song,” I heard a quick drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks, and I think, in a moment more, they were in my eyes as well. It never really died, then– the soul that can suffer so excruciatingly and so interminably; it withers to the outward eye only; like that strange moss which can lie on a dusty shelf half a century and yet, if placed in water, grows green again. She wept so throughout the development and elaboration of the melody.”
(from A Wagner Matinee)
The final story; Paul’s Case, tells the rather tragic tale of a young man who comes to scorn the teachers at his school and the people of Pittsburgh where he grows up. He feels himself meant for something better. Drawn to the theatre Paul gets work as an Usher at Carnegie Hall which his father makes him give up, finding him work instead in his own company. Paul takes desperate action to escape the life he both despises and fears. Cather’s understanding of her character Paul here is breath-taking; there is a surprising psychological element to this story of a rather damaged young man.
Each of these stories is beautifully evocative and so well written, that it is easy to forget that they form part of some of Willa Cather’s earliest work.